As a pediatric feeding therapist, part of working in the child’s natural environment is making regular preschool visits to offer teachers and staff guidance when a child is not eagerly participating in mealtimes. Whether a child is a selective eater or the more common picky-eater, here are seven tips for teachers that focus on the seven senses involved in food exploration and eating:
- Sight: New foods are better accepted when the sight of them is underwhelming. When serving foods family style, include TWO utensils for scooping from the main bowl or platter [see above]. Present each food with one larger scoop and a standard spoon. The kids at the table can choose which scoop/spoon they would like to use, which allows the more hesitant eater to choose a small sample instead of what might feel like an overwhelming shovel-full. If meals are served pre-plated, offer smaller portions (1 tablespoon) of new foods and allow the kids to request more after their first taste.
- Smell: Warm foods often have a stronger aroma and for some kids, this can be a quick turn-off before the food ventures toward their lips. In regards to the hesitant eater, begin passing the bowl of warm foods so that it ends up at his seat last, when it will be less aromatic. For meals that are pre-plated, simply dish up his first but place it in front of him last, so that the food has time to cool a bit. Straws are an excellent option for soups, because they allow the child to sample by sipping. The longer the straw, the farther away they are from the smell. The shorter the straw, the less distance the soup needs to travel to reach the tongue, but the closer the nose is to the aroma. Consider what suits each child best and adjust accordingly. Thinner straws allow for a smaller amount of soup to land on the tongue, but if the soup is thick, you may need a slightly wider straw. Keeping the portion as small as possible also keeps the aroma to a “just right” amount for little noses. Try tiny espresso cups, often under $2, for serving any new beverage, soup or sauce.
- Taste: Experiencing food doesn’t always mean we taste it every time. If the best a hesitant eater can do that day is help dish up the plates or lick a new food, that’s a good start! But when it comes to chewing, encourage kids to taste a new food with their “dinosaur teeth.” A fun option are these inexpensive tasting spoons commonly found in ice cream shops. Keep a small container in the center of the table for kids to take tiny sample tastes direct from their plates.
- Touch: Like any new tactile sensation, few of us place our entire hand into a new substance with gusto. It’s more likely that we’ll interact with a new tactile sensation by first using the tip of one finger or the side of our thumb. Take it slow – and remember that touch doesn’t just involve fingers and hands. The inside of the mouth has more nerve endings than many parts of our bodies, so it may be the last place that the hesitant eater wants to experience a new texture, temperature or other type of sensation. Start with where he can interact and build from there.
- Sound: The preschool classroom is abuzz with activity and thus, noise. Beginning each snack or mealtime with a song or a ritual, such as gently ringing some wind chimes to signal “it’s time to be together with our food” is a routine that centers both teachers and children. Whatever the ritual, involve the most hesitant eaters in the process and encourage their parents to follow the same routine at home if possible. Kids do best with when routines are consistent across environments.
- Proprioceptive Input: The sense of proprioception has a lot to do with adventurous eating. One fun routine that provides the proprioceptive input to help us focus is marching! In one preschool classroom, we implemented a daily routine where the kids picked a food and marched around the table with it as a way to mark the beginning of a meal and provide that much-needed stomping that is calming and organizing for our bodies. Download the song “The Food Goes Marching” here (free till February 1, 2015) as the perfect accompaniment!
- Vestibular Sense: While we all know the importance of a balanced diet, you may not be aware that a child’s sense of balance has a lot to do with trying new foods! Our sense of balance and movement, originating in the inner ear and known as the vestibular system, is the foundation for allfine motor skills. In order to feel grounded and stable, kids need a solid foundation under the “feet and seat.” Many classroom chairs leave preschoolers with little support and feet dangling. Create a footrest by duct taping old text or phone books together or if you’re extra handy, create a step stool that allows the chair legs to sit inside the stool itself.
An inexpensive version can be made with a box of canned baked beans from COSTCO, like this one. Carefully open the box because you’ll be using it again to create the footrest. Simply remove the cans, empty just two, then rinse thoroughly and discard the lids. Now place the cans back in the box with the two empty cans facing up, so that the legs of the chair will poke through the box and into those two cans. Reinforce with duct tape. Instant footrest!
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating. She is the co-author of Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook – A Stage by Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating (Oct. 2015), the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food! Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is offered for ASHA CEUs. She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.